With Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, the Victoria & Albert museum put together a one dimensional exhibition which, though charming and enticing, lacks depth. Five sections chronicle the collaboration between British photographer Beaton and three generations of Royals and introduce the visitor to his character and career.
In real life, these beautiful, well-known photographs have a real pull and depth of detail but the chronological angle is rather flat. Curator Susanna Brown could have added analysis by showing how Beaton evolved the tradition of royal portraiture or how he’s influenced the current generation of royal photographers. Or she could have explored how his talent for, in Queen Mum’s own words, “producing” the royals as “really quite nice and real people”, choosing to go from romantic, formal poses displaying the traditional attributes of power to casual family portraits has changed the way we perceive the Windsors. Did Beaton open the communication can of worms or was he merely following and feeding the growing public appetite for seeing the Royals as one of us?
In a testament to Beaton’s talent for allowing a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes of royal life, it’s impossible not to want to know more about his creative process and the strategy behind his pictures. Besides a letter from the Queen Mum, there’s barely a royal correspondence in sight, leaving much of the relationship between the photographer and his subjects to imagination. The exhibition is told from the single, biased viewpoint of the gushing, sometimes anxious quotes from Beaton’s diaries on how well each and every shoot went. For a museum which has accustomed regulars to interactive exhibitions pulling from a range of media, the mere three short documentaries on display are disappointing. Seeing in real life some of dresses, jewels and backdrops pictured would also have added relief to the portraits.
After its stint at the V&A, the exhibition will be touring the country and the Commonwealth to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, in keeping with the original aim of the photographs, described by Brown as “PR, not family portraits”. This is an exhibition to the monarch’s glory, with no nuance. Fitting in a Jubilee year but it nonetheless leaves the visitor wanting more. Beaton depicts a vanilla, pre-Diana-Camilla royal family, a carefully orchestrated comm exercise difficult to swallow after years of tabloid headlines.
Pictures from the V&A website: Queen Elizabeth II with her Maids of Honour by Cecil Beaton (Gelatin silver print, 2 June 1953, Museum no. PH.1530-1987); Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Andrew by Cecil Beaton (Gelatin silver print, Buckingham Palace, March 1960, Museum no. PH.1806-1987)
Queen Elizabeth II and Cecil Beaton at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until 22 April 2012